Rachel Korberg is executive director of the Families and Workers Fund, president of the board at the Stonewall Community Foundation and a sexual abuse survivor.
As a teenager, I thought of this teacher as my boyfriend, even when his behavior got creepy, even when he said I shouldn’t tell anyone because it would threaten my career dreams. A permissive school environment contributed to my confusion. He told me that one of his colleagues referred to me as his “girlfriend,” and that he and other teachers talked about which students they would like to have sex with.
By my mid-20s, I no longer believed the teacher had been my boyfriend, but I blamed myself for having made “bad choices.” In my 30s, during a visit home to Pennsylvania, my teenage stepsister complained about a “creepy teacher” who she said had been sleeping with current and former students. I felt time slip into slow motion and my body chill. I asked who the teacher was. She named the same man who’d taken advantage of me 15 years earlier.
The shame I’d long felt was overpowered by rage that he was victimizing other girls. I immediately reported him to the school district. But the prosecutor eventually assigned to the case informed me that the statute of limitations had long expired. To pursue institutional sexual assault charges — the Pennsylvania law criminalizing any sexual relationship between a teacher and a student — legal proceedings had to begin within two years of the crime when I reported.
Legally barring survivors like me from pursuing justice because we’re “too slow” to report is nothing less than institutionalized victim blaming. Statutes of limitations make it easier for abusers to continue to exploit their power by simply beating the clock.
Survivors have good reasons to delay reporting, such as being manipulated or feeling afraid of their perpetrator or the criminal justice system. Yet only seven states have eliminated the statute of limitations for all felony sex crimes.
A common argument in favor of statutes of limitations is that evidence becomes less reliable over time. But courts already weigh this, regularly deciding what evidence is or isn’t admissible even when crimes are reported immediately. Furthermore, it’s a myth that all delayed-reporting cases lack reliable evidence. In my case, there were message exchanges, a corroborating witness and a second student willing to testify about the teacher’s attempted sexual advances against her. My perpetrator’s lawyer even freely acknowledged in court that his client had “had sex” with me when I was a minor.
Because the statute of limitations ruled out trying my abuser for the sex crime, prosecutors had to pursue lesser charges (corruption of minors). The case recently concluded in a deal in which the defendant pleaded guilty to harassment, was put on probation, had to permanently surrender his teaching license and was referred to sex offender therapy.
That my perpetrator faced any accountability and was provided treatment is far from the norm. Although someone in the United States experiences sexual misconduct approximately every 70 seconds, less than a third of survivors report. It’s easy to understand why: My report initiated a miserable 2½-year legal process that culminated in the defense attorney slut-shaming me on the witness stand.
Survivors seeking justice must navigate a gantlet. On top of the abuse itself, for many, there are also threats to one’s physical safety and emotional well-being, blaming and shaming, and the intersecting affronts of racism, transphobia, ableism or anti-immigrant bias. Statutes of limitations are an unnecessary, government-imposed barrier that makes achieving justice needlessly harder.
States can correct this by ending statutes of limitations for all felony sex crimes. Two bills introduced in the Senate with bipartisan support — the No Time Limit for Justice Act and the Eliminating Limits to Justice for Child Sex Abuse Victims Act — could help by providing states with incentives to end criminal statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse and by removing the statute of limitations for federal civil cases raised by survivors of such abuse. These changes could go a long way toward encouraging survivors to come forward and making society safer.
Although the prosecutor in my case could pursue only reduced charges, our plea deal makes it much less likely that my perpetrator will ever again be able to prey on girls from a position of power at the front of a classroom.
And, in another positive, if incomplete, development, Pennsylvania recently ended its criminal statute of limitations for felony sex crimes committed against minors. The reform offers nothing for past survivors such as me, but future survivors can now be assured that such limitations will not stand in their way.